[OPINION] The wrecking-ball president

If there is one huge casualty of President Duterte’s first two years, it is the rule of law. It is that certainty that our behavior is steered by a body of laws, guided by the idea that law is a path to justice and not a weapon to be used for partisan aims, not a thing to be trampled on because it hinders a harmful centerpiece project.

It wasn’t a long time ago when Duterte uttered these words: “My adherence to due process and the rule of law is uncompromising.” Some of us held our breaths, others were hopeful as we listened to his inaugural speech.

These have turned out to be hollow. In reality, what we’re experiencing is the great unraveling of an anchor of our democracy, young and immature as it may be.

It began with the war on drugs, the single biggest destroyer of the rule of law. A total of 6,542 were killed from July 1, 2016 to March 20, 2018 – or an average of about 25 per day, statistics from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency show. Of these, 4,075 were murdered in so-called legitimate operations; the rest, 2,467, were carried out by vigilantes.

Tidal wave of immunity

These killings have unleashed a tidal wave of impunity as non drug-related murders surged during Duterte’s first two years in office. The Philippine National Police (PNP) has recorded 23,518 killings – which they call Homicide Cases Under Investigation – or an average of 33 a day. These do not include killings by cops in police operations and not all are linked to drugs. The PNP claims that 11.43% were related to drugs and the rest were not, including cases where they are still establishing motives for the killings.

This is the effect of the war on drugs, publicly supported by the President who applauded policemen who went for the kill, emboldening them. Duterte set the tone, blurring the borders between law and lawlessness.

The most brazen example was the slaying of Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr, an alleged drug lord, in his prison cell in 2016 by members of a police unit, the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group. Despite the findings of the National Bureau of Investigation that it was a “rub out”, and not a shoot-out as the police raiding team claimed, the perpetrators have gotten off the hook, thanks to the President.

Duterte ordered the reinstatement of the team leader, Superintendent Marvin Marcos, and even announced that he would pardon Marcos if found guilty. This lucky police officer remains unscathed and enjoys acceptance by the PNP top brass.  Instead of being held to account, Marcos is cloaked with immunity. He is among the untouchables in Duterte’s unrelenting war on drugs.

Uneven application of the law

Most of the victims, however, are from the poor communities, reinforcing the elitist system that Duterte promised to change, and flouting a core tenet that the law should apply equally to all.

The poor are the easiest to go after because they’re powerless, their families, voiceless, and hardly do they have access to justice.

To illustrate the logic of this war on the poor, an exchange between Justice Antonio Carpio and Solicitor General Jose Calida during an oral argument in the Supreme Court in April is instructive.

After a discussion on the 18-page police circular 16-2016 which pointed to mainland Chinese and Filipino-Chinese syndicates as dominating the drug market in the country and which set guidelines for the anti-illegal drugs campaign, Carpio asked Calida:

       Carpio: How many Chinese or Filipino-Chinese drug lords have been neutralized [arrested, killed] by the PNP since July 1, 2016?                

       Calida: … there were 419 Chinese who were arrested… 

       Carpio: Not killed?

       Calida: Arrested…

       Carpio: …How come the flagship project of the President is concentrated on going after small-time peddlers? Why not the big-time drug lords?

       Calida: …the instruction of the President is to go after all of them. However,
                    the big-time Chinese drug lords are outside of our jurisdiction. They are in China.

The Mocha standard

Another pillar of our democracy, freedom of speech, has been split to suit Duterte: one standard for his mouthpiece, Mocha Uson, and another for the independent media.

Uson’s offensive defense of Duterte’s controversial kiss of an OFW in Seoul – comparing it to the kissing of Ninoy Aquino by two women who were on the plane with him on the day of his return to Manila in 1983 when he met his death in the hands of an assassin – belongs to the realm of the “sacred” right to free speech. That’s how the President put it.

But when journalists write reports that scrutinize Duterte and his allies and hold them accountable, he disparages these as “fake news”.

Why, the President argued, freedom of the press is a privilege, not a right, conveniently forgetting our Constitution’s bill of rights.

Law as weapon

In two high-profile cases, Duterte further eroded the rule of law when he used state agencies and twisted interpretations of the law to go after his enemies, two women who questioned his war on drugs.

Senator Leila de Lima has been in jail for more than a year now, made to suffer for trumped-up charges. She was his Exhibit A, a clear and loud message to his detractors.

Now comes Exhibit B: the ousted chief justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, who was kicked out of the Supreme Court by her colleagues in an unprecedented and questionable quo warranto case. The executive department, through the Solicitor General, took a short cut, instead of letting Congress go through the impeachment process.

The Constitution is explicit that Supreme Court justices, among other high public officials, can be removed through impeachment.

This executive gambit worked because it capitalized on the seething resentment by a number of Supreme Court justices against Sereno who, unfortunately, turned out to be an ineffective leader.

Strongmen’s club

That’s how Duterte, the strongman, leads. He makes his own rules, unmindful of the damage he inflicts on institutions.

After all, a strongman has little attachment to mores because, ultimately, his rule is all about himself. Duterte is his own polestar.

He sees the world in black and white. Either you kill drug users or they will destroy our society. Either you write news that panders to him or you're “fake news.” Either you shut down Boracay or it will wallow in dirt. Either we go to war with China or we appease it.

And Duterte is comfortable in his own bubble: he gravitates toward like-minded leaders. He does not hide his gushing admiration for other autocrats like Xi JinpingVladimir Putin, the anti-democratic president of the US, Donald Trump, and Kim Jong-un. This club reinforces his worldview.

What’s disturbing is that 50% of Filipinos favor autocratic rule, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey of 38 countries. “Unconstrained executive power has its supporters…This type of regime is particularly popular in several nations where executives have extended or consolidated their power in recent years, such as the Philippines, Russia and Turkey,” the Pew survey said.

We may be looking at 4 more years of an unmoored presidency. – Rappler.com